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Elbridge Colby: “I am signalling to China that my policy is status quo”

The American strategist, tipped to be Trump’s national security adviser, on the balance of power in Asia.

By Sohrab Ahmari

For about a decade, Elbridge Colby has been making a single argument in and out of government: that America can’t afford Chinese hegemony in Asia. He has also been saying that this outcome is narrowly preventable, provided Washington renews its industrial base and stewards its existing military capabilities – rather than waste them on Europe and the Middle East.

So it’s notable that Colby, who served as a top Pentagon strategist in the first Trump administration and is widely expected to take an even more responsible role in a second, considers David Lammy, the UK foreign-secretary-in-waiting, a kindred spirit, someone who gets it. “What I like about Lammy,” Colby told me in a recent phone interview, “is that he’s… getting in touch with more of a European-focused strategic weight.”

Elbridge Colby photographed for the New Statesman in Washington DC by Greg Kahn

That’s a welcome contrast to “Global Britain” Tories such as David Cameron, who Colby thinks still imagine “the UK acting like a Doc Holliday”, a reference to the dentist-cum-gunslinger who served as sidekick to the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp in the Old West. “If you look at the realistic situation in the UK and the state of the armed forces and spending prognosis and reindustrialisation, and you look at the UK’s ability to project power, that is just not realistic.”

In the case of a conflict across the Taiwan Strait, for example, it isn’t clear that Britain would even offer a net benefit by dispatching naval forces to the region. “The UK has to borrow US aircraft for its aircraft carrier,” notes Colby. “I’m not trying to be a jerk, but who’s going to defend that [British] aircraft carrier? Who’s going to sustain it? This is not 1935. The Brits don’t have India and Aden and Cairo. It’s a different world.”

Instead, Colby urges Europe’s major powers to devote their energies to their backyard, permitting America to preserve the balance of power in Asia. “You’re right there,” he says, addressing British leaders. “The UK is rightly worked up about Russia. So focus there, where you have the capacity to realistically make a difference, and it’s more plausible to motivate the UK population to do something.”

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Such talk is heresy in Atlanticist circles, and it has garnered Colby more than a few critics among Russia hawks and Pax Americana neoconservatives. They maintain that Washington can do it all: prosecute a two-front war against Russia and China, with Iran possibly in the mix – even as the military funds they have long advocated haven’t materialised.

Donald Trump made very clear the key themes of his campaign in his debate with Joe Biden on 27 June, strongly underlining peace through strength. He stated: “China is going to own us if you keep allowing them to do what they’re doing to us,” and made clear the importance of deterrence vis à vis Russia and Iran. But he did not call for more military spending and intervention; instead he put a heavy emphasis on maintaining peace and on expecting US allies to step up. The agenda seems clear: indisputable strength and resolve where necessary, but combined with an openness to negotiation and a realistic understanding of the constraints America faces.

The hawks still tub-thump about confronting an “axis of evil”, now made up of China, Russia and Iran. But they barely consider the parlous situation of the American armed forces: between 2012 and 2018 less than a third of necessary maintenance on navy vessels was completed on schedule; much of America’s aircraft fleet isn’t mission-capable at any given moment owing to a lack of spare parts and delayed repairs; the military is struggling to recruit, while those who join are often poorly trained and motivated.

Then, too, the hawks’ threat assessment of Russia, says Colby, “vacillates between either, ‘Putin is Hitler, and the Wehrmacht is about to roll over Europe,’ and at the same time, ‘If we give [the Ukrainians] a few F-16s, Russia will be completely knocked away, and Putin is a paper tiger, and his nuclear threats shouldn’t be taken seriously.’” Colby’s own assessment of the Russians lies somewhere between these two extremes: “They have a rejuvenated military, they have a resolute political culture and they are particularly a threat to eastern and north-eastern Nato. So that’s a real threat. It’s not the Red Army of 1945, but it’s also not a total joke.”

In light of this, Europe must come to terms with a United States that couldn’t save the continent even if it wanted to. Colby rails against an “unholy alliance” between “the indispensable-nation people” in Washington and “Europeans who are quite happy with a dispensation in which the United States does the heavy lifting”. Sounding comforting notes about American “leadership, leadership, leadership”, the Atlanticists mislead Europe about the gravity of its circumstances.

“If, God forbid, you get a cancer diagnosis,” Colby asks, “who is the better friend? The one who says, ‘Everything’s gonna be fine’? Or the one who says, ‘Hey man, you gotta change your doctor, you gotta change your diet, you gotta take this seriously’?”

With his preppy hair and high pedigree, he evokes an earlier time when men with names like, well, Elbridge “Bridge” Colby monopolised the US establishment. But the mid-century aura can also cut in his favour, recalling a bygone age of global stability and American mastery. It is a more richly textured legacy than it might at first appear.

His great-grandfather, an army officer, journalist and academic after whom he is named, came to national prominence in 1925 with an essay in the Nation that decried the acquittal of a white man who had shot and killed a black soldier in Georgia for refusing to step off the sidewalk to make way for him.

Colby’s grandfather, William, was a Columbia-trained lawyer who served in the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, during the Second World War. A devout Catholic of a liberal bent, after the war William Colby went to work for the National Labor Relations Board. Once the Cold War kicked off, he took a post with the CIA in Europe, where he pushed for empowering the anti-Soviet left as a bulwark against Moscow’s influence. Eventually, he became CIA director in the 1970s under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

His grandson, Elbridge, holds degrees from Harvard and Yale Law School and has spent his career in the intelligence and defence agencies, including stints with the Department of Defense, the State Department, Iraq’s provisional government, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. During that time, the United States waged fruitless regime-change wars in the Middle East and North Africa in the name of spreading democracy and countering terror.

Colby enshrined the bitter lesson of that experience in the Trump-era National Defense Strategy, a document whose development he oversaw at the Pentagon: namely, that the main threat to American security and power comes from rival powers China and Russia.

Since then, he has developed an outsized prominence – for a wonk, that is – owing to his singular focus on China and his relentless determination to promote his ideas not just in formal columns and essays, but also on X, the app formerly known as Twitter. Sometimes it can seem as if there is no random social-media account too small for Colby to tussle with over grand strategy, though he remains impeccably polite.

Quite apart from the substance, the very form in which he engages in policy discussions has ruffled feathers. Aaron MacLean – a former adviser to Senator Tom Cotton, and now a senior fellow at the hawkish Hudson Institute – praises Colby as a “patriot” and “reformer”, while noting that his restless style can sometimes “obscure that there is basically a consensus on the right about the need to prioritise China”. The nub, MacLean suggests, is in the details, including disagreements over the centrality of Chinese revanchist ideology and the risks involved in neglecting other regions in favour of Asia Pacific.

Perhaps. Then again, much of the American right remains beholden to the older, we-can-do-it-all paradigm. Witness the establishment Republicans who continue to barrel past populist opposition to fund Ukraine. The story of American policy shifts is in some ways the story of individual reformers relentlessly hammering stale orthodoxy.

Stripped to its core, Colby’s logic comes down to this: “Asia’s more important than Europe, China is more formidable than Russia, and the other European states are much stronger relative to Russia than the Asian ones are relative to China. Today, it’s clear as a bell that we should be focusing on Asia.”

Why are China and Asia so crucial? It goes back, Colby says, to the wisdom of George Kennan, the early Cold Warrior and architect of the containment strategy against the Soviets. As Colby says, Kennan taught that “you don’t want the world’s largest economic area to be under the control of a hostile or potentially hostile power”. Asia is expected to contribute 60 per cent of global GDP growth in the coming year. And though the US is economically self-sufficient in many respects, and even if it could deepen trade integration with North America and Europe further, Asia’s geo-economic weight will contour our century and determine Washington’s place in it.

“If China dominates over half of global GDP,” Colby says, “it will shape everything around its economy. We’re not going to be able to reindustrialise. They’re not going to let us ban TikTok. We’re not going to have Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet. Those are going to be Chinese companies. The best universities are going to be in China.” In short, the American economy would be pushed down the value chain, and the United States would become second-class.

To foreclose that grim outcome, Colby advocates what he calls a “strategy of denial” (the title of his much-discussed, if crushingly dry, 2021 book on the topic). “My argument is that what matters for denying China regional hegemony over Asia, to get right down to it, is the military balance in Asia.”

Sanctions, as the war in Ukraine has amply demonstrated, don’t work. Blockades have also proved insufficient to stop a capable state bent on conquest: “If China’s gonna take Taiwan, and break up our anti-hegemonic coalition, they’ll be able to rinse and repeat after Taiwan with places like the Philippines, and so on. Not with the goal of territorial expansion necessarily beyond Taiwan, but with the goal of breaking up that [US-led] coalition.” Colby’s strategy is about “trying to deny China that secure geo-economic sphere”.

What does denial mean? “It means if we can defeat an invasion of an ally in the Western Pacific along the first island chain, we’ll probably be fine.” The Battle of Britain in 1940 is Colby’s prime analogy: “The fact that the British were able to essentially blunt Germany’s ability to even announce an invasion did not mean victory, it did not mean marching on Berlin. But it meant that Britain survived. In a sense, that’s all I’m calling for. I’m not calling for the ability to march on Beijing – but just for the anti-hegemonic coalition to survive.”

There are those who say that this is impossible, that the US is too far behind the curve to do what Colby suggests. “They are right to be worried,” Colby concedes. “But our task is narrow and feasible – if we focus.” He adds: “The Chinese can shoot missiles to their hearts’ content. But they need to be able to project and sustain a decisive degree of military power against Taiwan or another ally, and that’s quite demanding.” Especially if the US brings to bear “submarines, bombers, long-range missiles and drones” – and provided the Japanese and Taiwanese forces step up, too.

This isn’t to pooh-pooh China’s abilities. “At this point,” Colby warns, “the Chinese are actively preparing for war. They have the world’s largest industrial base. China has over 200 times the shipbuilding capacity of the US. Not all of that is being allocated to military shipbuilding, but it could be. They are dramatically increasing their capabilities and performance. We have to assume that they might go in the coming years at any time and that they will be halfway decent. And if they’re halfway decent, then they will have the advantages of numbers, resolve, position, initiative.”

While the contest would have gone America’s way two decades ago, today Colby sees a series of contingent questions lacking preordained answers: “How hard will the Taiwanese fight? How resolute and how fast is the American response? How well do the Chinese weapons work? How resolute are their soldiers? There’s a lot of questions there.” Still, he is hopeful that a successful strategy of denial is “within the zone of possibility”.

If there are those who disdain Colby as a traitor to Pax Americana – or, in a milder version, believe that he is too pessimistic about the limits of US power – there are others who see him as too optimistic about Washington’s prospects in a potential US-Chinese conflict.

William Ruger, a veteran libertarian foreign-policy operator tapped by Trump to serve as envoy to Afghanistan, commends Colby’s realism and prudence. Still, Ruger thinks, “Bridge overstates the importance of Taiwan to American interests, even though he is correct that China is our most important strategic challenge abroad.” If Taiwan were to fall to the Chinese, it might actually focus minds among other allies to show a resolve they have yet to muster.

It is “positive”, Ruger says, that “Bridge… doesn’t want to upset that status quo, while we help make Taiwan a porcupine. But should China force the issue, I’m not sanguine about the possibility of going to war with China and winning at reasonable cost over the tiny island, thousands of miles from America.” Not that Colby welcomes such a conflict, either, “but we need to be careful not to create a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Responding to more restraint-orientated critics, Colby says, “I’m a conservative of a certain type, but I’m not doctrinaire. I am enough of an Aristotelian, or something like it, that to me, in matters of prudential, practical judgement like politics or foreign policy, I’m never always a hawk or always a dove.” These orientations should be relativised in terms of an overarching goal: “a balance of power that is consistent with our reasonable differences” with Beijing.

Unlike many US politicians and ideologues, Colby makes a point of not referring to Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party as “evil” – this, “even though I hate communism”. He rejects a “cartoonish account” of the People’s Republic as “unstoppably rapacious”. Rather, he sees the Chinese as a “rising power” with “a rational interest in expanding their sphere and believing themselves to be aggrieved and put upon”. Such a country should be treated with respect – and confronted with a “strong shield of disincentive”, lest its ambitions trigger catastrophe.

“I am signalling to China that we are status quo,” he continues, “that my policy is status quo. My strategy is not designed to suppress or humiliate China… I believe China could achieve a reasonable conception of the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation, consistent with the achievement of my strategy. If you put all that together, that looks like somebody who is advocating for peace based on a realistic reading of the world.”

None of this can be achieved if America is stuck in Europe. It follows that the Europeans need their own “combat-credible conventional forces that can take on Russian manoeuvre forces and tactical aviation. Whatever the Russians throw at Europe – especially the Baltics and Poland – [they need to be] able to deny the Russians the ability to seize and hold key territory.” The Europeans “know how to do this. This is armoured units, artillery, tactical aviation, logistics, space capabilities, command and control. That’s what needs to happen. They need to be able to act together in a way that’s realistic. They’re starting to do that in Nato, but the Europeans need to provide the bodies and the platforms and the weapons and the industrial capacity.”

As for America’s Article 5 commitment under the Nato pact, “to me that article is saying, ‘Yes, we’ve committed to help defend Europe.’” But if “we overdo it in Europe, or the Middle East for that matter, we ask for the terrible outcome of a two-front war” involving Russia and China simultaneously.

The reindustrialisation his vision entails, Colby believes, could unite political factions across the spectrum and on both sides of the Atlantic. “Because if you’re a hawk, you want to build weapons,” Colby says. “Or if you’re a realist like me, you want to have peace through strength, and you want to be able to give or sell weapons to allies, so we can burden-shift. And if you’re on the left, you don’t want just barista jobs – you want blue-collar jobs with dignity.”

Here, too, Colby sees great promise in a figure like David Lammy: “I think the fact that he’s reaching out to New Right Republicans, in particular, is itself a signal of somebody who’s willing to look at where strategic alignment might be across conventional partisan lines.” The American right, seemingly poised to return to power, should return the favour with open-mindedness and a willingness to forge a new centre: “Europeans, like Lammy [and the German defence minister Boris] Pistorius, who are saying, ‘We want to take more responsibility,’ we should be able to work with them, whatever ideological orientation they might have at home.”

As for Colby’s own role, he was quick to clarify that his views don’t necessarily reflect those of any politician or campaign. Still, Washington is abuzz with his rising influence. Is Elbridge Colby fated to emerge as a Trumpian analogue to Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser? As one DC-based security professional told me, “Only one man knows the answer to that, and his name is Donald Trump.”

[See more: Russia, North Korea and the axis of autocracies]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain